The third installment of the alternate history series where Hitler and Himmler were assassinated in March 1943. A desperate military situation forces Carl Goerdeler’s Emergency Reich Government (ERG) to make a bargain with the devil. Across the Channel, Winston Churchill plays for time as he pursues a separate peace with Goerdeler. Two old acquaintances make the first steps on a long march toward national atonement. And meanwhile, the ERG’s deadliest enemy lurks within its gates…
On account of the various lockdowns around the world, I’m following the lead of several friends who are running free or deep-discount ebook promotions. You can read these books directly on your Kindle, your smartphone (with the free Kindle app for iOS or Android), or you laptop or desktop computer (with the free Kindle app for MacOS or Windows).
WW II alternate history
On March 21, 1943, a general staff officer came within a hairbreadth of killing nearly the entire Nazi top in a suicide bombing. In timeline DE1943RG, he succeeded. And then the conspirators discovered killing the tyrant was the easy part of the job.
Episode 3, “Spring Awakening”, is presently in copy-edit.
Campus romance, with lots of music
“On Different Strings: A Musical Romance” was my writing debut. Between a penniless young music tutor and a British-born engineering professor, an unlikely romance cemented by music develops. Until Kafkaesque academic politics and jealous exes make appearances…
“Winter Into Spring” is a sweet romance novella set in suburban Chicagoland.
Contributions to anthologies
This one I cannot set free, but my story in it fits entirely in the free preview segment, and is hence permafree.
Happy Purim to my fellow Jews! May the day be filled with joy despite the worldwide anxiety about the COVID-2019 epidemic.
It hasn’t always been a joyous occasion: during the Shoah, henchmen of the modern Haman “marked” the holiday in their own cynical way. As we learn from Wikipedia:
Nazi attacks against Jews were often coordinated with Jewish festivals. On Purim 1942, ten Jews were hanged in Zduńska Wola to “avenge” the hanging of Haman’s ten sons. In a similar incident in 1943, the Nazis shot ten Jews from the Piotrkówghetto. On Purim eve that same year, over 100 Jewish doctors and their families were shot by the Nazis in Częstochowa. The following day, Jewish doctors were taken from Radom and shot nearby in Szydłowiec. In an apparent connection made by Hitler between his Nazi regime and the role of Haman, Hitler stated in a speech made on January 30, 1944, that if the Nazis were defeated, the Jews could celebrate “a second Purim”. Indeed, Julius Streicher was heard to sarcastically remark “Purimfest 1946” as he ascended the scaffold after Nuremberg.
[In fact, said occasion was on a different Jewish holiday, namely Hoshana Rabba
I am about to start pre-publication editing of Episode 3 of my World War Two alternate history series, “Operation Flash”. The premise of this series, of course, is that the March 21, 1943 suicide bombing attempt on Hitler and his main underlings had succeeded. (Colonel Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff would only have needed to use a different detonator.) As I was writing Episode 1, I suddenly thought: “Hmm, let me check what day March 21, 1943 was on the Jewish calendar”. Sure enough, 14 Adar 5703 would have been the mother of all Purims in that timeline. So I could not resist splicing in a chapter about this, which also gave me a chance to touch on some other issues. Below I am reproducing this chapter.
Operation Flash — Episode 1 — Chapter 6
Berlin-Wedding Germany March 21, 1943
For the whole world, my name was Johann Schulze. I must never mention my old name, Joachim Israel Steinberg.
My father had been a well-known doctor. When the law forbidding Jewish doctors to treat non-Jewish patients came out, we tried to make ends meet. I somehow got a job at the Siemens-Halske electrical factory.
For one reason or another, some of my coworkers took a liking to me. So when the transports to the East started, we were distributed across a few families. Fortunately, I don’t look very Jewish, so I can “submarine”, as we call it. There are a number of us fellow “U-boats” hiding in plain sight in the city — right in the heart of the Third Reich. We are always on the lookout for Gestapo agents — and for traitors of our own, who for money or a temporary reprieve for their families ferret out fellow Jews for the Gestapo.
If anyone asked, I was originally from Lübeck, but our house had been destroyed in the major RAF raid, and my maternal uncle, Christoph Baumann, had taken me in. Some people would shake their heads in sympathy — “to flee bombardments to Berlin is like fleeing the rain into the gutter”. I would say I was “hoping to join the Wehrmacht soon”, or perhaps “wanted to join the Luftwaffe to help defend the Reich against the terror bombers”, but meanwhile was working at a factory essential for the war.
My sisters had an easier time submarining elsewhere, and actually worked in various jobs. Unlike me, they did not carry the sign of the Covenant, of course—if arrested and made to strip, I’d be done for.
We’d had a simple meal, mostly bread and a watery soup made of potatoes. This was one reason each family had only taken in one of us: unless we could somehow get registered under a false name and get ration cards issued, each hidden person was an additional mouth to feed with the same number of ration cards.
Occasionally I would take the risk and work an odd job as a day laborer, and with the money Mrs. Baumann could buy some food on the black market. She would also quietly sell family curios and jewelry, one item at a time, if needed. It wasn’t impossible to survive that way, as Mr. Baumann and his eldest son Peter had increased rations as “essential war workers”. Peter had lost a foot stepping on a mine during the France campaign and had been invalided out of the army.
The large radio, built at the same factory they worked, was one luxury we did have.
“I don’t get it. Are they drunk on the job?”
“Why?” I walked in from the other room, where I’d been reading.
“In the middle of the news overview, the radio suddenly went to a Franz Léhar tune.
“And then, after about a minute, it went back to the newsreader.”
Suddenly we heard him pause, clear his throat, and speak, with a jittery voice.
“We interrupt this program for a special announcement.”
“Proclamation Number One of the Reichsnotregierung!”
We looked at each other. Emergency Reich Government?!
“The Führer—”, he paused, “The Führer, Adolf Hitler, is dead!”
What?! We were dumbstruck. The newsreader continued.
“He was killed in a bomb attack together with the Deputy Führer, Reich Marshal Hermann Goering; with the Head of the Wehrmacht High Command, Field Marshal Keitel; with the Führer’s Chief Adjutant, Gen. Rudolf Schmundt; and many others.
“A conscience-less clique of party and SS leaders who are strangers to the front have attempted to stab the struggling soldiers in the back and to grab power for self-serving purposes.
“Therefore we, the Emergency Reich Government, have assumed executive power. In order to maintain law and order, the ERG has declared a state of martial law and delegated responsibility to the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht.
“1. The following are subordinated to the ERG and the Army:”
We listened in disbelief as a long list of Nazi Party institutions were declared either subordinate to the government or outlawed.
“…Effective immediately, the Waffen SS is to be integrated into the Wehrmacht. Any resistance to this order will be regarded as mutiny and punished as such.
“3. The Allgemeine SS and its associated organizations are declared illegal…”
None of us could believe our ears. Would this long nightmare at last be over?!
“…Any resistance to the military authorities is to be ruthlessly suppressed. The Fatherland is in its hour of greatest peril.
“The German soldier is faced with an historic task. It will depend on his energy and behavior whether or not Germany will be saved.
Ludwig Beck, Reichsverweser.
Dr. Carl Goerdeler, Chancellor.
Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht.”
* * *
Shock and elation filled the room; it was difficult to know if it all could be contained. The Baumanns had been Social Democrats during the Weimar Era. Mr. Baumann had been a member of the Reichsbanner Black-Red-Gold and later, when that merged with two other groups, of the Iron Front — which had fought both the SA brownshirts and the Communist “Red Front”. Somehow, he had escaped persecution after the Nazi takeover.
Meanwhile, “Siegfried’s Death” by Wagner had started playing from the radio.
“Now this senseless war will end,” Mrs. Baumann murmured, “and the troops will come home.”
“That won’t be easy,” Mr. Baumann replied. “The remaining Nazis won’t give up without a fight.”
“Perhaps Johann can come out of hiding,” daughter Ruth spoke up. For some reason, Ruth is a very popular girl’s name among Germans—even those who begrudge us the whites in our eyes, as we say here. This does not include our Ruth, mind you.
“Again, make haste slowly. And don’t go cheering too hard outside. You never know.”
I could speak only one word.
“Come again?” Peter asked.
“Today would have been the holiday of Purim.”
“It’s where we read the book of Esther, about how an evil man named Haman tried to kill all the Jews in Persia and they were saved.”
“I remember this book from Bible School,” Mrs. Baumann added. “Esther and her uncle Mordechai stopped him.”
“And Haman was hanged from the gallows he had prepared for Mordechai.”
I had lost my faith some years ago. But this was surely a most remarkable coincidence.
It is out with the old, and in with the new. Not just the year but arguably the decade! [*] And what better to end and start with than Bach!
“Gone is the old year” (Das alte Jahr vergangen ist), BWV 690 (followed by several other settings of that chorale).
And here is a New Year performance of the cantata, “Singeth unto the L-rd a new song” (Singet den H-rrn ein neues Lied), BWV 190
My best wishes to you all for the secular year 2020!
Now apropos Operation Flash, Episode 3 (which will likely end Book One). Originally it was scheduled for November, but work and life threw some curveballs. So only a few weeks ago, I was able to buckle down and write. Do not worry, it is coming: I got back alpha review comments on about half of it. Episode 3 may be longer than the other two, or I may split it on two. After release in ebook, the plan is to then also release a paper omnibus edition of episodes 1-3 (or 1-4), which should weigh in around 350-400 pages.
[*] Depending on your POV about whether years ending in zero start or end decades.
It was the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy who, in a short story called “Chains”, first laid out the “six degrees of separation” concept. I’ve had numerous occasions to think of this while doing background research for the Operation Flash book series.
This month, the Hyperion classical music label issued a new recording of music by Dohnányi Ernö (1877-1960), better known perhaps by the German version of his name, Ernst von Dohnányi. [Hungarian naming conventions put the family name first.] Brahms and/or Schumann aficionados won’t want to miss this lovely recording.
Ernst von Dohnanyi (EvD) was born in Pozsony/Pressburg/Bratislava to a mathematics professor and amateur cellist, whose family had been ennobled in 1697. He got his first music lessons from his father, then from age 8 studied organ with the a local church organist. At age 17, he enrolled in the Budapest conservatory, where he studied piano with pupil of Franz Liszt and composition with Hans von Koessler, a first cousin of neo-Baroque composer Max Reger and a devotee of Brahms. EvD’s first published composition was praised and plugged by Brahms; as a pianist, he rose to fame following an American tour.
Unlike many concert pianists at the time, EvD avidly performed chamber music aside from the usual solo works and concerti: he establised a musical association with the legendary violinist Joseph Joachim, likewise a Brahmsian. (The German-speaking musical world was at the time torn by factional dispute between followers of Wagner and traditionalist followers of Brahms.)
EvD’s fame as a composer and performer was such that, following a long stint as a professor of composition at the Berlin conservatory (where Joachim had invited him), he was appointed the director of the Budapest conservatory. Despite being considered “too German” by the more nationalist Hungarian musicians, he would often showcase works by Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly.
EvD’s first wife was a concert pianist named Elsa Kunwald (who herself appears to have been of at least partial Jewish origin[*]), with whom he had a son and a daughter. Their daughter, Grete, married the German physical chemist Karl Bonhoeffer (discoverer of ortho- and para-hydrogen), brother of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The son, Hans von Dohnanyi, (himself married to Dietrich’s sister Christel) did remain a skilled amateur musician all his life, but sought a career in law and government. Eventually, he became a senior civilian specialist in the Abwehr, the German espionage agency, where he was deeply involved in the anti-Hitler conspiracy cell led by the Abwehr’s second-in-command, general Hans Oster (with at least the tacit approval of the Abwehr’s enigmatic chief, admiral Wilhelm Canaris). When Hans’s brother-in-law Dietrich Bonhoeffer was forbidden to preach or publish by the National Socialist authorities, Hans hired him as an Abwehr agent, on the grounds that his extensive contacts with senior Protestant clergy abroad made him a valuable operative.
In our timeline, Hans was arrested shortly after the failure of the Arsenal Bombing Plot (March 21, 1943) for his role in helping a number of Jewish families escape to Switzerland as “agents”. [Yad Vashem would eventually honor him as “Righteous Among The Nations” for those actions.] Bonhoeffer, Oster, and Canaris were eventually all hanged at Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, after secret diaries by Canaris had been discovered that revealed the depth of their involvement in anti-Hitler conspiracies. They were joined in death by Karl Sack, the military judge-advocate who had been in charge of the investiagtion against them, but (as a member of the underground himself) had used delaying tactics in an attempt to run out the clock on the Third Reich before the men’s trial. Hans met his end on the same day, but at Sachsenhausen.
His son, Christoph von Dohnanyi, would in time become the musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra; another son, Klaus, served as Oberbürgermeister (freely: Lord Mayor) of Hamburg 1981-1988.
The Operation Flash series is, of course, set in a timeline where the Arsenal Plot succeeded. (Of course, then the plotters discover that killing Hitler and his chief henchmen was the easy part.) Hans, the handler and mentor of (fictional) protagonist Felix Winter, becomes a senior official in the Emergency Government led by Chancellor Carl Goerdeler. [Goerdeler, a popular former Lord Mayor of Leipzig who had resigned in protest against Nazi chicaneries, was the head of government-designate in case either the real-life Operation Flash plots or the 1944 Operation Valkyrie had succeeded.]
In our timeline, after the war EvD had to defend himself against accusations of NS sympathies, as he had continued to perform in Germany throughout. However, in view of the number of Hungarian-Jewish musicians who credited him with saving their lives, that dog would not hunt; EvD soon after left for the US to take up a professorship of music at Florida State University. His later compositions include a number of works inspired by American folk themes, such as American Rhapsody.
On a final “six degrees” note: EvD’s second wife was herself the ex-wife of composer and violinist Bronislav Huberman, who in 1936 would become the founding director of the Israel Philharmonic.
[*] The conductor Antal Dorati was Elsa Kunwald’s nephew (son of her sister Margit Kunwald)
I obtained this book through the Kindle Unlimited program.
When the series was introduced, it immediately was placed into my “Guilty Pleasures” category. A book in that category gets read, IMMEDIATELY, regardless of what else I’ve had in the queue ahead of it, and also regardless of whether or not I’m being at all diligent in in reviewing the books I have actually read. I don’t like talking about the fact that I have a Guilty Pleasure category. In fact, I plan to deny having such a category in all future conversations. Here’s the take-away: I absolutely LOVE this series.
Just in case you missed my review of the first book, here’s the basic idea: one of the very many plots against Hitler actually succeeded.[…] the Allies are thrown into confusion that nearly matches that of the German leadership. Nobody is certain who they can trust, and how far.
This is not a criticism, not a criticism, not a criticism! The books end too soon. That is SIGNIFICANTLY ameliorated by the fact that these books are so historically sound in their basis, that if you are like me, and love going on rabbit trails when your curiosity is triggered, you can spend a LOT of time reading about the way history worked out in OUR timeline. Almost all of the characters are based on real people; they make for fascinating reading. If the author had just used hand puppets, and told the story with them, it would still be a really nice thought-exercise of ‘what-if.’ However, through the eyes of the few fictional characters, we get great insights to the way people think, and what would have been real reactions to these circumstances, because the author has done a wonderful job of making the words on the page into real, flesh-and-blood people.
I’m going to eat each of these installments as they come out, BUT the real feast will be when the series is finished (and I hope that isn’t going to be too soon), and I grab up every installment and binge-read. Maybe multiple times.
Killing Hitler had been child’s play in comparison with figuring out what to do next. After the coup, the Reich was split into two. Bormann in Munich is Führer of a remnant Nazi state. Goerdeler’s Emergency Government in Berlin fights Bormann on the inside while waging a two-front war with the Allies on the outside. But a secret meeting abroad may be a game-changer. Meanwhile, Goerdeler’s special assistant Felix Winter investigates what turn out to be crimes beyond even the conspirators’ worst fears…
Like Episode 1 before it, this episode is just $0.99 on Kindle [free with Kindle Unlimited]
Kudos to all the people who helped make this happen, and especially to
In a series on book covers that is running on Mad Genius Club, Sarah Hoyt explains some of the challenges in designing an alternate history book cover. One of the examples she uses is “Operation Flash”.
I have, btw, recently done this cover for Nitay, who is a friend, but also the first client for my business (Covers Girl. The website will be up after Liberty con. I just haven’t been home long enough to devote a weekend to setting it up.)
In this novel someone kills Hitler, and history diverges. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to convey in a cover, at first sight. I mean, if Hitler had been stabbed that would be doable, but blown up… well.
So, I tried to convey confusion and that the Nazis still go on.
She told me at the time she was inspired by Harry Turtledove covers. Most of the image was actually rendered in Daz/Poser, with some details added in by hand. Note she hadn’t read the book: as she discusses here, a book cover needn’t be “the perfect scene from the book”, because that would only make sense to people who had read it! Instead, you’re trying to get people to pick the book up, and so you want to signal the genre and the general setting and subject matter.
By combining historical figures with fabricated point-of-view characters, Arbel gives us a behind-the-scenes look at a history that was ALMOST ours. It’s really a matter of moments that prevented this scenario from taking place, and it’s a story that deserves wider attention.[…]
I’m not sure exactly how he does it, but to me, Arbel seems to be writing of that time as a contemporary writer would. The scenes and characters seem to me to be thoroughly authentic, and NOT 21st century moments rotated backwards 80 years. Some of it, I’m certain, has got to be his familiarity with the language and the scenes, as they were in this period. I will leave it to others to dissect his technique[…]
I was utterly fascinated by this work[…]I devoured it in one session. It’s that good. I am looking forward, oh, yes I am, to more in this series, and I also hope that Arbel’s work gets the attention it deserves. […] it’s just too good to languish in obscurity.
No, I have not dropped off the internet 🙂 but things have been extremely busy both at work and in my little writing studio.
The first installment of my alternate history project, “Operation Flash”, just came back from copy editing. It will hit the virtual bookshelves of Amazon any day now: Episode 2 is 80% written already, and I have plans for at least Episode 3. I am planning for Episode 2 to be released sometime in June, and Episode 3 sometime in August.
The following cover was produced by “Covers Girl” (one of the many monikers of Sarah A. Hoyt):
On March 21, 1943, one man came within a hairbreadth of blowing up nearly the entire Nazi leadership.
In timeline DE1943RG, he succeeded.
Then the conspirators discovered that killing Hitler and his chief henchmen was the easy part.
There is a Talmudic passage (Bava Metzia 62b, reference via http://www.dvar.org.il/the-obligation-of-self-sacrifice) concerning the hypothetical of two men in the desert, of which only one has a water flask. (Like law school today, the Talmud is big on hypotheticals.) There is not enough water for both to survive, but enough for one.
R’ Ben Petura said that it was better that both should die than that one would see the death of the other. R’ Akiva, however, overrules him, saying that the man with the bottle should drink the water, quoting Leviticus 25:36 ‘Your brother’s life is with you’
I was reminded of this while reading the classic, chilling short SF story “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin. The first time I read it, I was shaking all over, and it still elicits a strong emotional response whenever I read it.
Briefly, here’s the plot. A survey party on an alien planet sends out a distress message that they are about to die from a plague, and that their supply of vaccine has been destroyed in a natural disaster. The nearest source for the vaccine, a spaceship in hyper transit, sends out a shuttle into normal space to deliver it. The shuttle has a precisely calculated amount of fuel for a one-way trip (the pilot will, nolens volens, have to join the survey party), with a negligible margin for error. After he has left, he discovers a stowaway: a young girl who was hoping to pay a visit to her brother on that planet.
If he leaves her aboard, both they and the seven people awaiting the vaccine will die. There is no way to hand off the vaccine in-flight. The pilot gets on the (presumably hyperspace) radio and runs through all possible options with the mothership, and all conclude that the only ‘solution’ is an extremely unpalatable one: for the girl to be jettisoned into space — for her to die that eight others shall live. Even for the pilot to do the chivalrous thing and sacrifice himself is not an option, because she doesn’t know how to pilot the shuttle and cannot be taught quickly.
The story is a heart-rending one to read precisely because it is devoid of sentimentality. Eric Flint, who has been editing Tom Godwin’s work posthumously for republication, points to the implausibility of the shuttle being sent out with no margin for error on the fuel. And anyone reading this who is not heartless hopes for a ‘deus ex machina’ solution to avoid the heartbreaking end.
But of course, that would have defeated Tom Godwin’s purpose, which as far as I can discern was twofold. First, it was to present a moral dilemma akin to that of R’ Akiva, but with the stakes changed from “one vs one” to “one vs many”.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, to express his view of the Universe as a cold, uncaring place that has no particular interest whether the laws governing it are emotionally comforting to human life. And where nobody can ignore ‘the cold equations’ in the long run, or the Universe will present the bill.[*]
The famous Kipling poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, expresses this latter thought. Its full text can be read here.
A ‘copybook’, I am told, is the British English term for a preprinted book in which elementary school pupils learned penmanship by copying out short phrases — usually pithy proverbs, sayings, or admonitions. Interestingly enough, both Glenn Reynolds (an American law professor better known as the “blogfather” Instapundit) and yours truly (likewise born on the seam line between Boomer and Gen-X) interpreted “copybook headings” as something else, namely column sums on a balance sheet. And passages like these sure admit of such a reading:
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
“The gods of the copybook headings” or “the cold equations”: They are neither good nor evil. They just are, and we ignore them at our greatest peril. No matter how much those of us of a liberal temperament (some of whom may actually be conservatives by conviction) might like it to be otherwise, the Universe (and human nature) are what they are, not what we would like them to be. And of course, like in science or engineering, for every “cold equation” we know there are ten, or a hundred, that we don’t know.
We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome…
[*] I note in passing that Godwin’s writings display a fascination with human survival in inhospitable environments. This bio wonders whether this stems from Godwin earning his keep as a surveyor around the Mojave Desert.
A friend who is an art historian lamented that even his most attentive students could not share his enthusiasm for modern art and that even those who understand the context in which it arose still dislike it.
One of the issues I have with much of what passes for modern “art” is that it is 99% concept (the more pretentious and preachy, the better) and 1% about execution. I am reminded of how in Dutch, “kunst” (art) comes from the same root as “kunde” (ability, skill, knowledge). It’s hard to see any “kunde” in making cans labeled “Merde d’Artiste” [sh-t of artist/sh-tty artist] (Piero Manzoni); in displaying one’s unmade bed as an art installation; dripping paint on a canvas (Jackson Pollock); making stains of various bodily fluids (Andres Serrano — this work of “art” was used by Metallica for two album covers); and the like. Richard Bledsoe of the Remodern Review has been blogging up a storm about this poseurism, and the neo-figurative “Stuckist” and “Remodern” movement that arose against this “stuck on stupid”.
What much of modern “art” really amounts to is a rejection of “craft” in favor of “concept”. I cannot help being reminded of a similar trend in literature.
Now you could call me an artistic philistine who is stuck on Renoir, and maybe you have a point — but I’m much more conversant with music than with any visual art, and yet we see something similar there: contemporary classical music has, for the most part, become a sterile exercise in intellectual and ideological peacocking by academic musicians for academic musicians and snobbish hangers-on.
Another friend asked in response whether this was a matter of acquired taste. After all, people who are not chocoholics or wine connoisseurs cannot truly appreciate “the good stuff” for how good it is?
Perhaps, but here’s the thing: even the person who would like the cheap chocolate from the dollar store as well as the rare gourmet stuff still has no trouble recognizing the latter as chocolate — they just would miss the added value. To use a musical analogy: consider listening to a Bach fugue. Knowing formal counterpoint will make you realize just how much of a genius Bach was to do what he did, but you don’t need to know any music theory to hear it’s music — and if it’s well played, an attentive listener — even without any formal training — will realize it’s a tapestry of independent voices in a harmonious conversation, even if you don’t know any of the “rules of order” that govern it (which is what classical counterpoint really is, a “Roberts’ Rules” for polyphonic music).
I just finished reading Frederick Forsyth’s memoirs, “The Outsider“, on the way home from a business trip. Forsyth is a superlative raconteur and the book a treasure trove of anecdotes and insights, as well as offers a window into what makes him tick.
It somewhat surprised me that his ambition had never been to be a writer — his boyhood dream, growing up during WW II, had been to become a fighter pilot, and against daunting odds he was able to do his (then still mandatory) military service in the RAF and to qualify on the de Havilland Vampire jet. But I was outright astonished to read that
he wrote “The Day of the Jackal” — a thriller that redefined the entire genre — in no more than thirty-five (35) days;
that it was the first novel he ever wrote;
and that the published text is unchanged from his first draft.
It was, however, another case of Renoir’s famous quote: “This painting took me five minutes, but it took me sixty years to get to the point I could pull that off”. Forsyth, at the time, had over a decade experience as a practicing journalist, first for a rural English newspaper, then as a foreign correspondent for Reuters and the BBC. He had learned there to write clear, concise, publication-ready copy on short notice: before the days of word processors, this meant scribbling an outline or a rough draft on paper, then typing the finished copy on a telex machine or dictating it over the phone to a typist/transcriptionist at the London office.
He had also learned, in his journalistic work, to research his subjects ahead of time (since deadlines needed to be met), and to develop “deep background” human sources for aspects of his reporting. (For instance, he would befriend forgers and underworld figures that taught him tricks for acquiring a false passport or a cover identity that his fictional protagonist would apply in the novel, and likewise learned how to acquire an untraceable sniper rifle.)
Originally, the essentials of the plot had come to Forsyth eight years earlier, when he was reporting from Paris during the turmoil following De Gaulle’s decision to withdraw from Algeria and the several assassination plots by the OAS that this triggered. (The one that opens the book is historical and came closest to succeeding.) He had then come to the conclusion that the OAS was so well-monitored and riddled with informants that the only way such a plot could succeed would be if the OAS hired a complete outsider, a very skilled professional assassin with great impersonation skills. (As Forsyth had lived in a less than luxurious area of Paris, near several dodgy bars that were OAS hangouts, he had a feel for the human dynamics in that organization.)
Especially in a first novel, the protagonist often includes a piece of the author. While on a moral plane, Forsyth and his fictional assassin couldn’t be more different, they both like the good life, and enjoy physical thrills like car racing — Forsyth did his military service as a jet fighter pilot, and later in life developed a taste for high-risk sports such as car racing, scuba diving, and parachute jumping. “The Jackal”s linguistic skills and mildly chameleonic abilities also mirror Forsyth’s: he had graduated high school fluent in Spanish, French, and German, all of them learned by immersion during extended stays abroad. (In fact, it was the French that had gotten him the Reuters job, as they were suddenly a correspondent short in Paris when they most needed one.) As he points out, he thus picked up slang and gestures that one does not pick up in school. At the same time, his ability to slip into what he calls “my Bertie Wooster persona” (after P. G. Wodehouse’s fictional dimwitted aristocrat) served him well: he would pretend to be a British tourist with a few words of atrocious French or English, and people around him would wrongly assume he did not understand them and discuss matters they would not normally share with outsiders.
So when Forsyth found himself penniless and blackballed after returning from Africa, had to decide how to make a living again, and decided he was going to try his hand at writing, he was able to pound out the story in record time.
As he tells it, what he had no idea of was: how one gets a book published. He naively submitted his manuscript to four publishers in succession, without synopses and without hiring an agent—after three rejections, TDotJ was still lingering in the slush piles of the fourth. He did not engage an agent, as the idea did not occur to him.
Then Forsyth had one of several great strokes of luck in his life: at a dinner party he was introduced to one Harold Harris, whom he was later told was the chief editor of Hutchinson Books (presently part of Penguin Random House). Upon going home, Forsyth wrote a 3-page synopsis of his novel, invited himself to Harris’s office as “a good friend I know socially”, not as “a novelist desperate to get published”, and talked Harris into reading the synopsis.
Unlike the slush pile readers (“what’s the point? De Gaulle is alive, so we know how your book ends”), and probably thanks to the synopsis, Harris understood that the book wasn’t about the ending but about the cat-and-mouse game between the Jackal and the French police. He asked to read the whole manuscript: Forsyth raced back to the fourth publisher and sweet-talked a janitor into retrieving it from what turned out to be the reject pile, as Harris considered it unethical to read a manuscript currently under consideration with another firm.
After the weekend, Harris asked for 1-page proposals for two more books, as he wished to sign a three-book contract. Forsyth thought of what he could distill from his journalistic experience, and came up with concepts (not yet finished plots) for what became The Dogs of War and The Odessa File. The rest is history. Very unusually for a novel, TDotJ was published as it appears in manuscript, without further editing. Forsyth acknowledges that Harris could have taken serious advantage of a rookie writer, but clearly was too much of an old-school gentleman to even consider doing so.
By an additional stroke of good luck, Fred Zinneman came to London shortly later to film a project that fizzled out, was given the book to read by an agent who had appointed himself to represent the movie rights of the book, and upon reading it decided this was going to be his next movie. Forsyth makes much of his lack of business acumen: at any rate, he never got rich off the movie, as he sold the rights for a UKP 20,000 lump sum (about US$600K in today’s money). It did, however, drive more sales of the book and helped make Frederick Forsyth a household name.
“Chance favors the prepared mind,” as Louis Pasteur would say about serendipitous discoveries. Likewise, Forsyth was able to make the most of the breaks he got primarily because he had acquired unusual skills relevant to his writing, appears to be blessed with an encyclopedic memory, and had honed his writing craft in a nonfiction field.
Like many, I devoured Leon Uris’s Exodus as a teenager. By modern standards, it is a severe romantification of a story that hardly requires it (the great Jewish historian Howard Sachar described the book as “a shallow swashbuckler”), but there is no denying Exodus is an immensely entertaining read. Published in 1958, it not only became the greatest bestseller in US history since “Gone with the wind”, but became a samizdat (underground publishing) classic among Soviet Jews.
The backstory of one of the main Exodus characters, Holocaust survivor Dov Landau, contains this line about Auschwitz:
Here in Block X, Dr Wirths used women as guinea pigs and Dr Schumann sterilised by castration and X-ray and Clauberg removed ovaries and Dr Dehring [sic] performed 17,000 `experiments’ in surgery without anaesthetics.
Clauberg, a prewar gynecology professor of some renown, and Schumann, an undistinguished physician who had earlier been a “veteran” of the mass euthanasia program Aktion T4, were carrying out experiments on human subjects trying to find an inexpensive method of mass sterilization, to be applied on the Reich’s slave labor population of so-called Untermenschen (subhumans). Clauberg favored injection of caustic chemicals into the womb — which were to cause blockage of the ovarian ducts through scarring — Schumann irradiation. The ovaries and testicles of the irradiated prisoners were removed for pathological examination by Schumann himself and by two prisoner doctors, the German Jew Maximilian Samuel and the Pole Wladyslaw Dering (see Robert Jay Lifton, “The Nazi Doctors”, pp. 246-249 for more about him).
Dering was a surgeon who had been imprisoned at the Auschwitz main camp for resistance activities. As Lifton tells the story (much of which came out during the libel trial), Dering at first enjoyed a good reputation among the prisoners, then became embroiled with the medical experimentation, and eventually was taken away by Clauberg to come work at his private clinic in Silesia. (In order to enable his release from the camp, Dering is said to have been administratively declared a Volksdeutsche — an ethnic German.)
After the war, Dering had made it to England with the help of fellow Poles in the British army. He actually spent a year and a half in prison there following an extradition request by (now Communist) Poland. After a witness, who had been castrated at Auschwitz, was unable to recognize During (he had in fact been ‘operated’ upon by another prisoner doctor), the request was denied on grounds of mistaken identity. Following his release, Dering worked as a physician for the British Colonial Service in Somalia (then a British protectorate) for about a decade, before eventually being knighted (OBE) and returning to London to work as a physician for the NHS.
Dering’s complaint was that, while he had completed operations, it was nowhere near 17,000 and he never did so without anaesthetic. He also said that he obeyed Nazi physicians’ orders under threat of death. The printer issued an apology and settled with Dering. The other two went to court and ran truth as a defence. It was the Holocaust on trial again.
While Uris and his publisher admitted that they could not prove 17,000 operations, they did proffer a list of 130 individuals on whom shocking operations were performed.
Uris’ solicitor took 2 years to compile evidence and find witnesses.
The trial was held before a jury of 12 (10 men, 2 women) in Queen’s Bench Court VII. It lasted 18 days, having started on 1 April 1964. It was conducted in Greek, Polish, Hebrew, English, German, French and Ladino. The judge was Justice Horace Lawton. Lord Gerald Gardiner, later Lord Chancellor of England, appeared for Uris and the publisher.
The plaintiff called 7 witnesses, some of whom were fellow Polish prisoners. The defendants called 22 witnesses from Auschwitz.
Some of the evidence on behalf of the defendants included this:
In October 1943, 10-12 Greek girls aged 15-19 had ovariectomies conducted on them without any medical, physical, psychological or legitimate reason;
In 1943 Dr Dering removed 1 or both testicles from 12 young males for no legitimate reason; See British Medical Journal Vol 1, 5393 16 May 1964.
8 witnesses gave evidence of having received ovariectomies;
6 gave evidence whose testicles had been removed;
A list was obtained from the Auschwitz Prison Hospital Register. It included the names of 130 people who received surgical operations, where Dering was either the surgeon or assistant. The list was at least partly in Dering’s handwriting.
While the defendants could not show that Dering operated without anaesthetic, there was evidence that operations were conducted under painful spinal anaesthetic that left the patient conscious;
3 prisoner doctors gave evidence for the defendants: Dr Kleinova, Dr Breuda and the defendants’ star witness, Dr Adelaide Hautval.
Dr. Adelaide Hautval (who appears as “Susanne Parmentier” in QB VII) was a French psychiatrist (the youngest daughter of a Protestant minister) who had been arrested for aiding Jews and sent to the Auschwitz main camp. (“If you love the Jews, you will share their fate,” she was told.) After the war, she was made an Knight in the French Legion of Honor for her resistance and humanitarian activities in the camp, and Yad Vashem bestowed the title of “Righteous Gentile” on her. Recently a geriatric hospital in the Paris suburb of Villiers-Le-Bel was renamed in her honor.
Dr. Hautval quickly discovered that the project entailed inhuman experiments, performed without anesthesia, on Jewish women prisoners. She told Dr. Wirth that she would not participate in his experiments and added that no person was entitled to claim the life or determine the fate of another. When forced to assist in the surgical sterilization of a young woman from Greece, Dr. Hautval told Dr. Wirth that she would never again attend such a procedure. When Wirth asked Dr. Hautval: “Don’t you see that these people are different from you?” she replied, “In this camp, many people are different from me. You, for example.”
Notably, Dr. Hautval was not even punished for her refusal. This demolished Dering’s argument that whatever he had done, he had done under pains of death. (Admittedly, Hautval was somewhat safer as she was racially considered an Aryan, while Dering was still considered a Slav.)
Technically, Dering “won” the trial, but was awarded “the smallest coin of the realm”, one-half penny, in damages. Dering was also assessed the hefty costs of the trial (about 30,000 pounds, or 3/4 of a million dollars in today’s money). He died one year later.
As mentioned above, Leon Uris turned the experience, and the massive amount of documentation he had gathered, into the bestselling QB VII. While including some dramatic license as well as some romantic subplots, the novel in general sticks so close to the actual trial as to qualify as a roman à clef. The fictional concentration camp “Jadwiga” and its satellite extermination camp “Jadwiga West” are clearly stand-ins for Auschwitz I and Birkenau (Auschwitz II), respectively. “Adam Kelno” was a colonial physician in Sumatra rather than Africa, but otherwise appears to substantially be based on Dering. “Abraham Cady”, the womanizing fighter pilot turned writer, was of course the fictionalization of Uris. “Thomas Bannister”, a “future Prime Minister” (rather than Lord Chancellor) is of course based on Gerald Gardiner, and so on. The Jewish prisoner doctor Boris Dimshits was elderly, suffered from eczema, and was sent to the gas chamber when no longer able to operate well enough — just like the real-life Maximilian Samuel. (According to Lifton, the cooperation of the latter — a decorated WW I veteran — had been secured by false promises his 19-year old daughter would be spared. )
One lurid detail about the medical “examinations” — too obscene to be repeated on a somewhat family-friendly blog — that I was convinced had been added by Uris for dramatic effect, turns out to be based on an actual “invention” of Horst Schumann. In general, despite some minor glitches (such as the cringe-worthy nonsense IDF rank of “Sergent (Captain)” when “Seren” is clearly meant), the book was as thoroughly researched and fact-checked as one could hope to see before the Internet and Google era. Possibly in order to forestall another libel suit, Uris did, however, make sure to use fictional names wherever he could, and some character names are linguistically so improbable that they appear to have been chosen deliberately to ensure nobody with that background would bear said name.
Some suspense is created in the novel with the hunt for Egon Sobotnik and his medical log book: in fact, the log book was obtained from the Auschwitz memorial site, although its role was as central to the real as to the fictional trial. While the fictional Sobotnik is the key witness in QB VII, the testimony of Dr. Adelaide Hautval’s fictional stand-in “Suzanne Parmentier”s is given pride of place, and contains extensive word-for-word quotes from Hautval’s at the real-life trial.
King Pyrrhus, after winning a battle at enormous cost in lives, is supposed to have said “One more such ‘victory’ and I am undone”. If there ever was a case of a Pyrrhic victory at a libel trial, it would be this.
This anth0logy was originally meant to be released on Thanksgiving Day, but instead is now available for pre-order. Just $2.99 will get you fifteen freedom-themed short stories, including my own “The Tenth Righteous Man” (previously unpublished).
From the members and associates of the Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance (CLFA) comes Freedom’s Light, a collection of short fiction that celebrates the human yearning for liberty. These stories will extol the value of human rights and the sacrifices of those who defend those rights. This collection features works from a wide variety of genres and a diverse set of authors, including Hugo Award nominee Brad R. Torgersen and 2016 Dragon Award winner Nick Cole. Freedom’s Light will entertain us and elevate the humanity we all share.